Last June, a political action committee called the Freedom, Security, Prosperity PAC formed and started collecting checks from Florida donors.
The fund was not identified with any federal candidate, but there were some clues as to who might be behind it: The majority of donors were executives at Hooters, the suggestively named chain of restaurants known for its busty wait staff in short shorts and tight tops.
Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) worked for the chain as a marketing consultant before winning a state House seat in 2000 that paved the way for a successful Congressional run four years later.
A month after the PAC formed, its treasurer, Washington, D.C., lawyer and lobbyist Craig Engle, signed on as treasurer of Mack’s re-election campaign.
Jeff Cohen, Mack’s chief of staff, said last week that the lawmaker formed the PAC “in order to have an appropriate vehicle to help elect Republicans that he wants to support and to help our party.” It was the first public confirmation that Mack controls the fund. Under current campaign finance law, Members of Congress can set up leadership PACs to gather money from supporters and distribute it to party committees or other candidates looking to goose their campaign accounts.
Increasingly, since the “personal use” restrictions on re-election committees effectively don’t apply to PACs, they also have been tapped to cover other expenses, including meals for the lawmakers behind them and thank-you gifts for big donors. Most recently, House Members with PACs have used them to circumvent the chamber’s new ban on lobbyist-funded travel, couching some trips with lobbyists as fundraisers for the accounts, which then pay the lawmakers’ way.
All of those activities so far are permissible. And lawmakers can engage in them without having to publicly disclose their affiliation with their PACs.
Now, as House Democrats wrestle with the final details of their ethics reform proposal, some voices on and off Capitol Hill are calling for a simple change: requiring lawmakers to reveal the accounts they control.
“Absolutely, it’s something that should be disclosed,” said Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a group that advocates transparency in Congress. “If money is coming into something controlled by a politician, you should know who that politician is.”
Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) agrees. He is pushing a bill called the Leadership PAC Disclosure Act. First introduced last year, the measure would require every leadership PAC to name the lawmaker behind it in its statement of organization and in all follow-up reports. It also would require the Federal Election Commission to clearly display that information on its Web site.
“If we want to improve and hopefully strengthen people’s trust in government, these leadership PACs should have to expose who they are. It’s absolutely critical,” Jones said. He said he is seeking meetings with committee leaders to bring new attention to the bill in hopes that it will get included in a reform package set to roll out in coming weeks.
Since leadership PACs began proliferating in the mid-1990s, campaign finance experts have debated whether the accounts should be considered affiliated with the re-election campaigns of Members who control them. Those in favor of the PACs have argued that considering them legally linked to lawmakers would mean subjecting them to the overall contribution limits on campaign accounts, thereby defeating their purpose as a source of extra funds.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.